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"It's Not Fair!"

Authored By: 
Cavin Thuring, Computer/Technology teacher

Teenagers are obsessed with fairness. Every parent with a teenaged child knows that the slightest hint of a perceived injustice will cause a child to yell, “It’s not fair!”  And as parents and educators, we know full well that our decisions and actions will be scrutinized on whether they are fitting and balanced.  

But why are teens so wrapped up in fairness? Conventional wisdom teaches that fairness, or more broadly, the issue of right and wrong, is a learned response to observation.  After all, notions of fairness seem to require an advanced understanding of behavior.  But if that is the case, why do children get caught up in issues of fairness so early on in life?

It may be that fairness isn’t learned, but rather it is innate.  Children may be born with at least a basic understanding of right and wrong.  Although there are many studies that suggest children prefer nice behavior, a couple of studies taken together stand out in their suggestion that babies have an incipient understanding of fairness so early on that it may actually be innate. Both studies together suggest that babies are well-tuned to a right way and a wrong way to act and what is the correct response to those acts. (For further details about the studies, please follow the links provided at the end of this article.) They show babies can identify right and wrong and what is fair by the ages of 5 and 8 months.  Such early ages seem to suggest that this is not learned from the environment, but rather that it is innate. As teenagers, then, it is no surprise that children have learned to articulate their dissatisfaction with the way of things. In my observations, I have found that when students discuss amongst themselves whether another child has been treated fairly, they take personal feelings out of the equation. Though teens are not usually lauded for being objective, in questions of fairness, they appear to seek some kind of objectivity.

Our children’s issues of fairness can be maddening for us to manage. Indeed, the studies help explain why, as teenagers, kids are acute judges of fairness—they do this as infants! But knowing that fairness exists in our children as infants, and that they may be born to respond to the world through that lens, offers some bit of comfort.  When there is something they perceive as unjust, they cannot help but yell, “It’s not fair!”

For further reading on these studies and a few more:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html?pagewanted=al...

And a rebuttal of the drawn conclusions of the above studies:
http://aphilosopherstake.com/2012/11/19/can-babies-unlock-the-origins-of...